Chaucer’s Inferno: Dantean Burlesques in The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s Inferno: Dantean Burlesques in The Canterbury Tales

By Matthew J. Bolton

Critical Insights: The Canterbury Tales, edited by Jack Lynch (Salem Press, 2010)

Introduction: After telling the story of Count Ugolino, the unfortunate lord who, along with his young sons, was locked in a tower to starve to death, Chaucer’s monk cites his sources. For those who would like to know more about Ugolino, the monk has a recommendation:

Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise,
Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille
That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse
Fro point to point, nat o word wol he faille. (VII.2459-62)

Those who wish more, and on a nobler scale,
Should turn and read the great Italian poet
Dante by name; they will not find him fail
In any point or syllable, I know it.

The monk is speaking for Chaucer himself, who knew Dante’s Commedia well enough to appropriate it here and elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales. The Monk’s Tale, for example, draws quite explicitly from Canto XXXIII of the Inferno, while the prologues to both The Prioress’s Tale and The Second Nun’s Tale are adaptations of a prayer in the Paradiso. While these may be two of the more obvious of Chaucer’s adaptations of Dante, the English poet is indebted to his Italian counterpart in several other and more subtle respects. Like Dante, Chaucer composed in the vernacular rather than in Latin, organized his work by means of the frame story of a guided pilgrimage, and included himself as a character in the journey that he describes. Yet Chaucer gives each of these elements a carnivalesque turn, so that the serious matter of Dante’s Commedia becomes, in The Canterbury Tales, the stuff of comedy. In particular, the two poets’ contrasting depictions of Satan illustrate the difference between their solemn and comic sensibilities, and may also write large two modes of medieval thought and imagination.

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